Creativity within limits, Beach Boys and Beatles

6VGFmEhG Some of my biggest epiphanies about life, love, art, and commerce have come from arguing with friends about rock & roll—and whether my favorite bands are more influential or accomplished or talented or original or innovative than their favorite bands!

An old college buddy from Connecticut, David Sewall, used to visit me on occasion when I lived in Southern California many years ago. Dave was and is the world’s biggest booster of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, while I am among the world’s biggest fans of Lennon-McCartney and The Beatles. Though we’ve expressed great admiration for each other’s favorite, we’ve strongly disagreed about which band is ultimately God’s gift to the world. One summer night in my home along the canals of Venice Beach, we finally had it out.

We were listening to an early Beach Boys album and I dropped the casual comment that as brilliantly constructed as the BB’s music was their lyrics were banal and sophomoric. Even worse, I thoughtlessly characterized the band’s whole approach as “limited.” Dave, for the first time ever in my presence, lost it. “F*#% the limitations,” he roared, and proceeded to school me (loudly) on the richness of their four-part harmonies, the sophistication of their key switches, the charming innocence of their lyrics, and much, much more. He pounded home the point that I could dwell on “limitations” all I wanted—on what the Beach Boys were not doing—or I could dwell on the celestial sounds they were creating. The monologue continued long into the night until Dave, the Music Theory major, knew I was appropriately chastened for my glib dismissal of his band's greatness.


December musings

Xmas tree on waterHey, it's the holidays! (Ok, you didn’t need me to tell you that.) A good time for seasonal ruminations.

As I listen to round-the-clock Christmas music, I’ve become obsessed with stories of holiday hits that may not have been written by those who got the credit—and the hefty royalties. I guess this reflects my interest in both songwriting and the business of intellectual property—but also a concern that folks get what they deserve, especially in this time of gift-giving. I’ve written before about the disputed origins of two standards, which are played endlessly during the holidays...

“Jingle Bell Rock” is the first and most popular rock & roll Christmas song, sung by Bobby Helms and released in 1957. The song is attributed to Joe Beal and Jim Boothe (public relations and advertising guys, respectively). But years later Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, who played guitar on the recording, claimed he and Helms had to completely rewrite Beal’s and Boothe’s poorly-written original (“Jingle Bell Hop”)—adding new words, new verses, and a new middle section. The two of them considered it “a whole new song.” But Beal and Boothe got the full credit and songwriting riches (in eight figures, spread over time) for one of the most frequently played songs in recording history.


Beyond the carrot patch: motivate thyself

file0001229562991 Since the financial meltdown of 2008 there has been mounting public criticism of executive compensation in the US, especially in contrast to the pay of front line workers. (Today the disparity in income from the highest-paid executive to the average-paid worker in Fortune 500 companies is an ASTOUNDING 354 to 1.) Outsized CEO bonuses are probably the most controversial part of the equation. But while there is debate about whether those bonuses are merited, there is an absence of debate whether bonuses are useful motivators at all! I've reprised an older post to address this.

One of SO many things that the best rock groups can teach us about team performance is the value of self-direction.

Most of the top bands—from the Beatles to U2 to Green Day to the Dixie Chicks—have operated with a maximum of personal autonomy. No one was (or is) peeking over their shoulder, micromanaging them, directing them what to write or how to play.

This is helped by the fact that bands usually hire and fire their managers, not the other way around, which makes it abundantly clear who works for whom.

The importance of personal autonomy was brought home to me again reading psychologist Edward Deci's 1995 classic "Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation"—based on decades of research by himself, colleague Richard Ryan, and others.


Attract talent with talent

file0001100690782 Here’s a specific business skill I’ve learned from my R&R days. You can file this under project management: building the team.

Let's say you’re trying to get some VIPs involved in your project, program, event, or panel. You’re going after the best minds or biggest talents or most experienced professionals in your company or community. What do you do? I was faced with this task many years ago when, as a singer-songwriter-pianist, I wanted to get the best local talent for my rock band.

I started out by getting a world-class guitarist (a fellow I happened to live with)—an amazing rock/folk/blues picker whom everybody wanted to play with and learn from. That enabled me to get one of the top bass-players around who loved playing with the guitarist. Boom! I quickly had two major talents, which made it easier to get a great drummer—someone who thought very highly of the other two. I can’t say I knew exactly what I was doing at first, but I quickly realized I was assembling a who’s who of the top players in the city. This started a virtuous cycle in which having the best musicians made everyone play even better, which landed us good club gigs and concert dates, which drew more of the best players to the band. I was just a novice as a bandleader (and certainly not a singer/pianist extraordinaire) so this was a major heist to get this caliber of talent.